What Universities, Libraries, Researchers and Publishers Owe Democracy
Democracies need both more knowledge and more knowledgeable citizens
It has been an intense couple of weeks here in the United States as the U.S. Congress begins its public hearings on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when the U.S. Capitol was attacked by a mob acting on the false claims made by former President Donald Trump about the 2020 election. It has been a horrific year in Europe, with the extraordinary violence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These and a myriad other combined economic, environmental, and political developments — in the third year of a global pandemic — show us a world seemingly on the edge of a dramatic and perhaps final break with the implicit promise of the post-World War II era: that we had seen horror, and there would be a collective commitment to a better, more democratic future.
It is precisely the fraying of democracy around the world that is the key premise of Ronald Daniels’s important book, What Universities Owe Democracy, written with Grant Shreve and Philip Spector. Daniels argues that we ought to be much more attentive to how the invaluable work of universities (and by extension the full research enterprise) has been made possible by the inextricable connection between higher education and liberal democracy. Democracies need both more knowledge and more knowledgeable citizens, and universities have contributed both. Universities have been a great facilitator of social mobility, and are key places where the challenging work of debating ideas has taken place.
Yet not only is democracy in decline, but its long-standing compact with higher education is, too. Citing the Varieties of Democracy Project and quoting Larry Diamond’s observation that we are experiencing a "democratic recession," Daniels calls for universities to commit to more explicit pro-democracy work. “It is imperative,” he writes, “in this moment of democratic backsliding, that our universities more self-consciously vindicate their obligations to this most precious and fragile form of self-governance.”
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